Saturday 21 March 2009

The church is our mother: a homily for mothering Sunday

A guest-post by Andrew Brower Latz

Text: Jn 19.25-27

In John’s highly symbolic gospel, the short scene we’ve just heard is layered with meanings. Notice first the presence of Mary. She has not been a major character in the story so far but she does appear twice near the beginning, in chapter 2. The first time is when she hints that Jesus should do something about the wine at the wedding. In this instance Jesus says to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” It is as if Jesus resists any attempt to control his work as Messiah, even when it comes in a context that normally carries obligation, such as the mother-son relationship. But then Jesus actually does something about his mother’s request, and so he begins his public ministry, reveals his glory, and evokes belief in his disciples.

After this story in the first 11 verses of chapter 2, we have the strange verse 12, in which Jesus goes to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and disciples, and they abide there for a few days. The verse seems strange because it appears to be there merely to connect two powerful stories in the narrative – the changing of water into wine and the cleansing of the Temple – but it’s not a very good connection. The key, though, is the theme of abiding. In John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus is what qualifies you to be a disciple; just being with Jesus over time is all you have to do. You might make serious mistakes but if you just stay with him, live with him through and beyond any mistakes or wrongdoing, you still get to be his disciple. So in verse 12, John announces a key theme of his gospel and includes Jesus’ mother as one of his disciples.

As we skip forward to chapter 19, which is Mary’s next appearance in the gospel, John lets us know that she is a model disciple, because she is still with Jesus through his terrible death. Now there is a difference from the wedding. Then it was not Jesus’ “hour”, and there was little room for Mary’s involvement, but now Jesus’ hour has come and he moves Mary into a central place. Mary not only has the honoured role of giving birth to the Messiah through her obedience to God, not only kick-starting Jesus’ work as the Messiah, but now he makes her the mother of the beloved disciple. As we might expect, there is more going on here than a new relationship for just two characters – but to explain it we need a quick detour into Revelation.

Why does Jesus call his mother “woman”? It seems a bit odd at the level of plot and character. It’s because the word “woman” is doing its main work at the level of symbolism. If we accept that John wrote Revelation, and that there is a common symbolism between the two books, we can read in Revelation 12 that the “woman” is a symbol of the mother of the Messiah as well as the mother of other “children” who “keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus”. In Revelation, the “woman” is clearly a symbol of Mary, with the implication that Mary, by birthing the Messiah, is the mother of the church too. So Mary stands for the church and is a model disciple; she and the church are central figures in God’s work to bring redemption to the earth. By calling Mary “woman”, Jesus is acknowledging her centrality in God’s saving work. As the Fathers of the Church liked to say, if Jesus is the second Adam, Mary is the second Eve; if God is our Father, the Church is our mother.

Jesus’ hour – the time in which he glorifies God by his death – is in a very profound way something he endures alone, but it is also transformed by the faithful abiding of Mary and the beloved disciple, by their discipleship. Jesus makes possible our salvation, but he does so with the participation of Mary and the Church. That is why, in the verse just after the end of our reading, when he has brought Mary and the beloved disciple into this central role, Jesus can then say that all his work is finished. What results from all this is a new family based on faithfulness to Jesus rather than genes or marriage, a family based on the grace of gift rather than the given of biology, symbolised by the new relationship of Mary and the beloved disciple. The newness of gift is a characteristic of God’s way with the world, of God’s “economy” (to use some theological jargon). God’s way is sometimes surprising, sometime miraculous, as Jesus’ own birth and the birth of Samuel remind us. Both of these men, born in unusual circumstances, would lead God’s people to greater faithfulness, would be part of God’s answer to some serious problems in Israel’s life; and in both cases, Hannah and Mary are vital to the work of God.

We are reminded by the stories of Samuel’s birth and Jesus’ death that to be “given to the LORD” can involve suffering as well as joy. It also involves, as Paul reminds us, the need to develop a number of virtues that are characteristic of the family of people who follow Christ: forgiveness, compassion, love, humility, kindness, meekness, patience, peace. In short, to work together to make a community of peace, love and forgiveness, to take up our responsibility for our community.

As we saw, Jesus made the Church central in God’s saving economy and Paul’s letter explains how that is so. The Church embodies in a community the way that Jesus lived in the world, and by doing so it opens up access to God. Just as Jesus made God available to all, to sinners and to the righteous, so does (or should) the Church. Just as Jesus forgave people on behalf of God, and so brought real, material salvation from sin, so does (or should) the Church. Paul tells us we should forgive as we have been forgiven by Christ. At the end of John’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and tells them that if they forgive the sins of any they are forgiven by God. In other words, we are given authority to forgive sins on God’s behalf as Jesus did; or to put it another way (stealing the words of Rowan Williams), it is our task to take responsibility for God.

This is why the Church is our mother. Jesus won our salvation for us not by persuading an otherwise disinclined God that he really should forgive us, but by putting us in contact with the non-competitive God who is already loving and forgiving us, who already accepts us no matter what our moral state – the God who doesn’t need to be protected from our wrongdoing. But Jesus is, in a very real way, gone, absent, ascended into heaven. But he, and the presence of God he opened up, is mediated to us by the church. Without the Church we do not have access to the redemption that Jesus began. That is why the great Catholic scholar Henri de Lubac liked to say that the Church is the sacrament.

That all sounds very good, but it’s not true; well, it is, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of the coin is that God is also to be found outside the church, and that we as the church often fail to embody God’s presence to one another and to the rest of the world. It is our task during Lent to discern if and how we have done so, and to turn away from that.

But we are not left alone. Remember from the liturgy that before we eat and drink, we call on the Holy Spirit to make Christ present with us through the bread and wine. And remember that before Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins and to take responsibility for God, he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.”


Pastor Joelle said...

Your title made me think of the old priest's saying "The church is a whore, but she's still our Mother"

Adam Kotsko said...

Why should we accept that John wrote Revelation?

Winging it said...

Stumbled upon this blog. Or did I? Loved the image of the church as our mother.

Anonymous said...

Why should we accept that Adam Kotsko wrote this preciount comment? I am utterly serious. What proof could we possibly have in this day and age of internet hacking, phishing, IP address stealing, etc, etc.?

Personally, I think the devil wrote it and Adam just took dictation.

Anonymous said...

St E-
I think you are serious, but what does preciount mean?

Anonymous said...

sincerely yours,
the devil

Anonymous said...

Adam, I'm afraid the best answer I can give is to say, 'consult the commentaries.' But you're right to imply my argument doesn't work if John and Revelation are works by different authors. If that's true, I still think there's quite a bit more going on with Mary in John than a 'historical figure'.

Adam Kotsko said...

No, I don't really think your homily hangs on that -- after all, you draw on Paul to make your point too, and he didn't write either Revelation or the Gospel of John. You could just as easily have decided to draw on "New Testament imagery" generally without needing that explicit claim about authorship.

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